The stage for the 2019 tripartite elections is now set with the submission of presidential nomination papers with the Malawi Electoral Commission from 4 to 8 February at Comesa Hall in Blantyre. The elections will be highly contested since 1994 not only because of the campaign messages that are being sold and the political players involved, but there is a shift in the balance of support. Whoever will win the elections will be voted by a small percentage of the electorate.
Until July 2018 when Vice President Salous Chilima formed a splinter party, UTM, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), it seemed like a two-way race between Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and DPP. However, with the formation of UTM the political landscape has changed dramatically as the new party has amassed support beyond anyone’s expectations.
Whether the large crowds seen at campaign rallies will be translated into votes is yet to be seen. It is equally difficult to say whether UTM has any stronghold because it will be contesting in the elections for the first time. The strength of a political party is not measured by the number of people attending its rallies, but the number of parliamentary seats.
However, it is the choice of the running mate that has the country talking. Individuals without political clout or track record of political ambitions have been chosen with an exception of MCP who had already unveiled Sadik Mia has running mate to Lazarus Chakwera. Party supporters and the nation at large are surprised at the choice of running mates. Former President Joyce Banda picked Jerry Jana for her People’s Party (PP); UTM saw Salous Chilima picking Michael Usi as his running mate. UDF Atupele Muluzi picked Aford MP Frank Mwenefumbo while President Peter Mutharika picked Everton Chimulirenji.
While a party president is given the mandate to choose a running mate, the person they choose should be seasoned, inspirational and well-known enough to appeal to party members and to the electorate. The running-mate (who is essentially the vice president of the country) should inspire confidence and trust among the citizens. In the event that the incumbent president is incapacitated or has died (God forbid!) he will be the president of the country. The choice of running mate can disappoint members and cause them to change their mind of who to vote for because it reflects lack of seriousness and does not inspire much confidence that such a person can lead effectively. MCP is the only party with a pair which people have seemingly liked.
Apart from surprises, the choice of running mate has also revealed that regionalism is still a factor in Malawian politics as parties look for people in regions who would bring more votes in their fold. That Malawian political parties are essentially regional is uncontested. While all political parties have been unequivocal in saying they want to do away with tribalism and regionalism, the way they choose running mates is largely influenced by regionalism. For example, Sidik Mia was largely roped into MCP leadership to woo votes in the southern region as Richard Msowoya, the then vice president of MCP, who comes from the north was seen as not bringing more votes.
Everyone knows how Msowoya was sidelined and Mia became a de facto vice president of MCP soon after joining the party. In 2014 President Joyce Banda (JB) damped Vice President Khumbo Kachali (KK) and chose Sostein Gwengwe (central region) as her running mate to win more votes in the central region and to tap the youth vote. This was despite the fact that KK was a more seasoned politician and had suffered together with JB under Bingu Mutharika over disagreement about the succession issue.
Saolusi Chilima has equally chosen Michael Usi (from Southern Region) because UTM wants to tap votes into DPP stronghold. Peter Mutharika has chosen Chimulirenji to win votes in the central region which is MCP stronghold (though Ntcheu where Chimulirenji and Chilima comes from never votes for MCP). Although Atupele Muluzi has paired with Mwenefumbo (from the North), north as a region is not taken as a major political player because people are few. If one may ask, why did President Peter Mutharika, Saulos Chilima or Joyce Banda not pick a running mate from the north? All of them have used this as a strategy to attract more votes in regions where running mates are coming from.
Incidentally, no political party, whether MCP, DPP, UTM, PP or UDF, can claim to have a stronghold in the north. Northerners do not vote anyhow. They vote the way they see things. Parties like MCP, DPP and UTM should expect to compete fiercely for votes. UTM, DPP, PP UDF and MCP will share votes in the Southern Region. MCP will still retain its stronghold in the central region.
Although President Mutharika and his DPP have failed to live up to the expectations of the Malawians, they should be able to get more votes in the southern region (Mulanje, Chiradzulu, Zomba, Phalombe, Blantyre, Lower Shire). UDF should be comfortable in its traditional stronghold of Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka, Liwonde and parts Zomba. UTM should also do well in Zomba, Mulanje, Lower Shire, and some parts of the central region such as Ntcheu and Salima.
The central region (Dedza, Dowa, Lilongwe rural, Kasungu, Ntchisi, Mchinji, Salima with an exception of Ntcheu) has always thrown their political weight behind MCP. The cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba are cosmopolitan and political parties should share parliamentary seats.
The real contest will revolve around DPP, MCP and UTM. Other political parties and presidential candidates have very slim chances of succeeding.
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